Category Archives: Uncategorized

The battle was won, but the war will be lost.

So, there is dancing in the aisles over the (temporary) defeat of drone registrations.

Yes, Part 48 is a new rule contrary to Section 336.  That was my argument in my response to the FAA when they announced the “emergency” rule with no public comments.

So, now while the combatants celebrate their win, let’s look at what has been set in motion.  Drone registration is not dead, simply asleep.

This decision is fuel to Dianne Feinstein’s bill that would give low-altitude airspace control to local officials.  Imagine how devastating that will be to the commercial drone industry.  My base is Massachusetts.  There are 295 towns and 56 cities in Massachusetts and I shudder to think I will have to license, permit and otherwise comply with 351 different sets of regulations?  That would be business-ending.  Ms. Feinstein’s bill, and it’s growing list of supporters should be raising all kinds of warning flags in the personal drone community, but most drone businesses, let alone hobby drone owners, won’t bother to let their legislators know what they think of this really dumb proposal.

The sentiment behind Feinstein’s bill is an insight into what will happen next when the FAA looks to Congress for another vector into drone regulation.  The solution is so simple- ask Congress to repeal Section 336 and let the FAA regulate hobby flight as any other aviation activity.  Part 107 is structured in a way that would easily allow the FAA to encompass hobby flight.  Not only will we see registration, but pilot certification as well.  Even for hobby use.

In my post from last year: Ever wonder about the words: “remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating”?, I explained that the FAA does not licence anything (there is one exception), everything they do is through certification.  It appeared to me at the time that the FAA was setting up the pilot certification to be flexible enough to include hobby pilots.

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant.” (Isoroku Yamamoto)
Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.

 

FAA Releases Updated Drone Sighting Reports

“February 23- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today released an updated list of pilot, air traffic controller, law enforcement and citizen reports of potential encounters with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) – more popularly called “drones”. The latest data cover February through September 2016.”  FAA website

Some reports are of a violation of a regulation, mostly drone flight less than 5 miles from a controlled airport.  But most of the reports are non-events not worth counting.  Unfortunately drone-paranoid will see each of them as an approaching apocalypse.

From the FAA:
“Although the data contain several reports of pilots claiming drone strikes on their aircraft, to date the FAA has not verified any collision between a civil aircraft and a civil drone. Every investigation has found the reported collisions were either birds, impact with other items such as wires and posts, or structural failure not related to colliding with an unmanned aircraft. ”

Below are a sample of non-event sightings.  As before, a large number of reports were of UAS hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of feet from the observer.  I really question the ability of someone who can identify a drone at these distances.

So, now any UFO is a drone?
1/1/2016 11:19 PHOENIX, AZ/UAS INCIDENT, HELICOPTER, REPORTED SEEING A UAS OR SMALL BALLOON AT 1,800 FEET 6 W PHOENIX. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. UNKN IF LEO WAS NOTIFIED.

It’s a drone, we’re all gonna’ die!!!
1/31/2016 8:00 RESTON, VA/UAS INCIDENT, CIVILIAN REPORTED SEEING A WHITE QUAD-COPTER, APPROX 3-4 FT IN SIZE, ON THE DRIVEWAY OF HIS PRIVATE HOME.

Let’s see…  Drone is at 400 ft and a half-mile from the helicopter, and the pilot can actually see it?
1/30/2016 22:35 MIAMI, FL/UAS INCIDENT, MIA APPROACH ADVISED HELICOPTER, FLYING AT 500 FEET REPORTED A UAS 100 FEET BELOW AND .5 MILE FROM ACFT

Another UFO. Note that it was 2000 ft below the observer.
1/15/2016 0:45 LANCASTER, TX/UAS INCIDENT Summary: Climbing through 15,000 ft on departure reported a drone or balloon, pilot was unsure, approximately 2,000 feet below the aircraft just north of LNC. No evasive action taken.

Yet another UFO, don’t know what it is, so let’s say it was a drone.
1/14/2016 15:40 Summary: HELICOPTER REPORTED A POSSIBLE SIGHTING OF A DRONE 1/4 MILE NE OF MIA AIRPORT. HE SAID IT LOOKED WHITE AND STATIONARY AROUND 400 FT AGL. HE WASN’T 100 % SURE BUT WANTED TO ADVISE ATC. DEN AND MIAMI DADE POLICE WERE NOTIFIED.

Interesting non-event with a UFO.
1/1/2016 19:48 Summary: RECEIVED A REPORT FROM AZU8730 (A332) ABOUT A BALLOON OR POSSIBLE DRONE ON 4 MILE FINAL RWY 17L, . PILOT STATED HE WAS UNSURE WHAT HE SAW. HAD SUBSEQUENT ARRIVALS REPORT ANY ACTIVITY IN THE REPORTED AREA AND RECEIVED NEGATIVE REPORTS. CANNOT CONFIRM DRONE ACTIVITY IN AREA REPORTED.

Another not-a-drone non-event.
12/31/2015 0:00 MIAMI, FL/UAS INCIDENT Summary: THE PILOT REPORTED THAT HE OBSERVED A RADIO CONTROLLED MODEL CESSNA AIRCRAFT THAT WAS WHITE WITH RED STRIPES OPERATING IN HIS VICINITY. HE WAS AT 1400 FEET AND REPORTS THAT THE MODEL AIRCRAFT WAS IN A LOOP UP TO ABOUT 800 FEET. HE TURNED TO THE NORTH TO AVOID THE AIRCRAFT. THE LOCATION HE OVER FLEW IS A KNOWN MODELERS CLUB GRASS STRIP THAT HAS BEEN IN OPERATION FOR MANY YEARS.

Remember “Project Blue Book”? (USAF Archives)
12/22/2015 11:39 ORLANDO, FL/UAS INCIDENT, REPORTED POSSIBLE DRONE/BALLON AT 2600FT ON LOC, ABOVE GLIDE PATH, ON 6 MILE FINAL RUNWAY 17L AT 2,600 FEET. NO EVASIVE ACTION TAKEN. NO DESCRIPTION OF UAS GIVEN. ORANGE COUNTY SHERIFF AVIATION UNIT NOTIFIED.

A drone operating a Mode-C Transponder???
12/20/2015 0:47 BANGOR, ME/UAS INCIDENT,
Summary: WE [ATC] HAD BEEN OBSERVING A MODE C EQUIPPED TARGET OPERATING 7-10 MILES NORTH OF BGR). AT 1750Z HELICOPTER WAS INBOUND TO EASTERN MAINE FROM THE NORTH. NO EVASIVE MANEUVERS WERE NECESSARY. WHEN HE PASSED THE TARGET THE PILOT SAID IT LOOKED LIKE A SMALL WHITE DRONE. THE TARGET THEN LEFT THE AREA CLIMBING TO 2200 (UNVERIFIED) AND APPEARED TO LAND AT THE DOVER, MAINE AIRPORT . SHORTLY BEFORE THIS WE HAD OBSERVED ON RADAR A TARGET DEPARTING THE DOVER AIRPORT THAT APPEARED TO LAND AT THE DEXTER MAINE AIRPORT (1B0). “

It’s a drone, we’re all gonna die!!
12/19/2015 22:00 A/C: N/A
Summary: ANCHORAGE POLICE DEPARTMENT CALLED, ADVISED THAT A CITIZEN REPORTED A DRONE FLYING IN THE POTTER’S MARSH AREA THAT WAS A “HAZARD TO AIR TRAFFIC”. OUTSIDE OF ALL CONTROLLED AIRSPACES.

I wish my eyes were this good.
Date/Time: Dec 13, 2015 – 0100Z, A/C: (BELL 206)
Summary: BELL 206 INBOUND FROM ABOUT 4 MILES NORTHWEST AT ABOUT 1,500 OBSERVED A UAS ABOUT 100-200 FEET ABOVE THE GROUND OVER SANTEE LAKES. CHOPPER 8 ADVISED THE UAS WASN’T A FACTOR FOR THEIR AIRCRAFT. SAN DIEGO SHERIFFS NOTIFIED.

Probably a completely legal photo shoot.
12/12/2015 23:35 COLUMBIA, SC/UAS INCIDENTRICHLAND COUNTY 911 DISPATCH RECEIVED A REPORT OF 6 – 7 UAS IN THE VCNTY BEATTY RD, 10 N CAE.
Summary: CAE RECEIVED A PHONE CALL FROM RICHLAND COUNTY 911. A CITIZEN CALLED 911 AND REPORTED 6-7 DRONES OVER COLUMBIA, SC AND INFORMED 911 TO CALL CAE ATCT. THE DISPATCHER INFORMED CAE THAT THIS ADDRESS IS WHERE THEY ARE BUILDING A NEW WALMART. THERE WERE NO ALTITUDE REPORTS, NO DESCRIPTION OF THE DRONES AND NO DIRECTION OF FLIGHT. DEN AND ATM NOTIFIED.

I don’t know if I would fly with a pilot reporting pink elephants.
10/30/2015 0:00 LIVERMORE, CA/UAS INCIDENT ATCT ADVISED A PILOT CALLED FROM HIS HOME, STATING A PINK UAS WAS ORBITING OVER HIS HOUSE AT APPROX 500-600 FEET, 2.5 ESE OF LVK ARPT. NO ACFT REPORTED SEEING THIS UAS AND UAS WAS NOT VISIBLE FROM TOWER. LIVERMORE PD WAS NOTIFIED

I knew there would be one of these in the report. Damn, that’s a fast drone, and when did Boeing add rear-view mirrors to the 737s?
9/5/2015 4:45 A/C: SWA211 (B737)
Summary: SWA211 STATED [after landing] THAT A DRONE WAS VERY CLOSE TO THEM AROUND 200 FEET AND FOLLOWED THEM IN. THEY LANDED WITHOUT INCIDENT. ERIE COUNTY SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT ADVISED AS WELL AS THE DEN.

Drone ID Chart

Coming Soon ??

dji-hasselblad1344065-pixabay

A Hasselblad on your next drone?  Wow, a 6cm sensor that would give unprecedented resolutions to drone photos.  Imagine a survey with 1cm per pixel resolution at 400 ft….

We can dream, can’t we?

Well, it may happen.  DJI just acquired the controlling interest in Hasselblad.  Yes, the iconic camera from Sweden that went to the moon in the Apollo landings.  Hasselblad was, in its day, the pinnacle of camera quality.  The 6cm image size produced photos far superior to the best 35mm Nikon or Mamiya cameras.  Hasselblad developed a 6cm digital back for their camera, which at $20,000 was pricey, but the professional photographer who had an investment in the Hasselblad body and lenses would usually pay the price rather than retire a considerable investment in their equipment.  Then Hasselblad did something really stupid- they required any third party sensor manufacturer to obtain a license from Hasselblad to make a sensor back that fit on the Hasselblad body.  The third-party backs cost less than half the Hasselblad CCD back, so Hasselblad wasn’t selling many of their backs.  Fast forward, Hasselblad bled money defending their licensing in court, and lost.  Hasselblad bled more money trying to be “different”, even making a “woodie” camera with a walnut grip.  The company went through CEO’s and majority owners like pancakes at the I-Hop.  So, seeing an opportunity, DJI bought the majority ownership of Hasselblad.

So, will we see a 6cm camera on a future DJI drone?

How will Google Air and other drone delivery systems work?

How will Google Air and other drone delivery systems work?
We Have the Technology, We can Build it Now

Those who keep saying “It will never work!” have no imagination.

Why are Amazon, Google and the UAE are spending millions on drone delivery research if drone delivery could “never happen”? Is it possible that these giant corporations and the government of the UAE know something that the toy drone owner doesn’t? Cellphone giants and NASA are researching a drone “ATC” system.  These people don’t spend money on something that has no future.

Not only can it work, it already does work. In July, 2015 a demonstration flight by drone operator, startup Flirtey flew medical supplies to a rural clinic in Wise, Virgina . German delivery firm DHL routinely operates a drone to deliver medical supplies to an island in the North Sea that otherwise has to wait for one of the two daily ferries.

So how will it work? A year ago I hypothesized that drone delivery would start this way. Amazon Air will be very expensive. It is going to be for people who have to get product in less than a day. I don’t see general delivery to homes working for a while because there’s too many social challenges for that to happen. The scenario that I predict is that Amazon will set up satellite distribution centers around cities that already have an Amazon distribution hub. Packages needing immediate delivery will be flown by drone from the hub to the rooftop of the distribution center where the brown truck will make the last few miles delivery (or the customer can be there waiting for the drone). The distribution center will load the drones they collected during the day and be trucked back to the hub at the end of the day. Eventually, the distribution center will swap batteries and send the drone back to the hub.

Evidence? Amazon is in the process of opening storefronts that would be the perfect location for a drone port on the roof.  There is one in its hometown of Seattle, another in San Diego, and a third planned for Portland, Oregon. Media reports have also indicated that Amazon may open bookstores in Chicago and New York.  They employment ads where each store has one inventory manager who will run the store’s safety program.  This is from the Amazon job posting:

Inventory Management Lead Top Line Objectives:
• In addition to being the Store’s Inventory Management lead, you run the store’s Safety Program.
• Safety is the store’s first priority. Everyone owns safety, but you are the store safety champion and a knowledgeable point of contact for our corporate safety partners.

Let your imagination stew over that one.  Would Amazon Air be one of the safety partners?

Next, delivery to selected businesses will look pretty much the same except for the brown truck at the end. Amazon recently applied for a patent on a Drone Delivery Receptacle which uses IR Lasers to guide the drone to a precision landing.

You could even have a Drone Target with a Bluetooth transponder attached so that when the drone gets close, the Drone Target would guide the delivery drone into a landing.

I expect that in a few years the bike courier will be replaced with rooftop to rooftop delivery between office buildings.

When you stop thinking that Pizza on the porch is all that describes “Drone Delivery” then you begin to see a lot of opportunities.

 

Air Traffic Organization Policy

One of the most frequent frustrations for commercial drone operators has been the circular “activity” that flight in Class C or D airspace has been.

The FAA tells the operators that operation within Class C and D airspace requires approval from the ATC facility that controls that airspace, yet the ATC Towers have been told that no procedure exists to permit UAS flight. Are we having fun yet?

The FAA has issued a 22-page ATO Policy (effective on October 3, 2016) that finally defines the procedures that every ATC facility will follow for authorized UAS flight in their area.

The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office predicts between 400,000 and 2.3 million licensed Part 107 operators by 2020. Although automation is in development to process the large number of requests that facilities anticipate, it is not expected to be operational until 2018. In order to mitigate the impact of authorizing numerous requests on individual ATC facilities, FAA Headquarters has developed a procedure for the authorization of Part 107 Operations. Using input from ATC facilities, areas in which Part 107 Operators may fly without impact to manned aircraft operations and procedures for the approval/denial of applications have been developed and described in this order (effective October 3, 2016).

I am not clear how the process will work until the automated process is implemented, but it appears that the UAS pilot will make contact through the FAA UAS website.

B. Facility Responsibilities 1. General. In the event a Part 107 operator contacts an ATC facility directly for authorization, the facility must not issue authorization. The facility must direct the operator to the FAA UAS website, http://www.faa.gov/uas.

What I find most encouraging is that all of the ATC facilities have been directed to provide input to FAA HQ in the form of an altitude grid.  It looks a lot like the upside-down wedding cake of Class B and C airspace on sectional charts.

UA Authorization Map Design

UAS Facility Map (UASFM)

Here’s how I read the ATO Policy.  The pilot will notify FAA HQ of a planned flight.  FAA HQ will use the UASFM (above) to determine if the flight will require coordination with the facility.  If no coordination is deemed necessary, then the approval is sent by email to the pilot and the facility.  You are done – go fly.  The FAA expects this to be fully automated sometime in 2018, so in the meanwhile, expect some confusion.

Here’s more from the ATO Policy:

Chapter 4. Part 107, sUAS Operations
A. Headquarters Airspace Authorization Procedures.
1. Headquarters, on the facility’s behalf, will use the UAS Facility Maps (UASFM) to evaluate Part 107 requests based on the location and altitudes authorized by the facility.
a. If requests are authorized using the UASFM, no facility coordination is required.
b. If Headquarters is unable to authorize the request using the UASFM, they must coordinate with the facility.
c. Full time Class E surface areas are processed at Headquarters. Headquarters coordination with facilities will not be required for Class E surface area approval.

If facility coordination is required, the facility has to provide a valid reason that the flight cannot be completed as filed.  No more blanket, “there’s a drone, we’re all gonna’ die”.

This is a big deal. A really big deal.  This is the FAA entering the 21st century.

 

I hold a private pilot certificate and a 333 exemption. Do I need to take this 107 test?

I’ve gotten a few questions like this on the333.org forum and by email, so it seems to be a good topic for the blog.

First, your Section 333 Exemption Grant has no bearing on the PIC certification.

They are two distinct and separate things.  The FAA certifies pilots and operators.  Jet Blue, United, Fed-Ex are operators.  The person in the left-front seat with the aircraft controls in front are pilots. (This is why I and others commented on the Part 107 NPRM that calling the person flying a drone an “operator” was not an appropriate term).

The Section 333 Grant Letter is similar to a 14 CFR Part 121 Air Carrier Certification in that it defines the terms and conditions that the operator must follow.  Including the requirement that the person operating the controls of the UAS must hold an FAA-issued airman’s certificate, such as a private, sports pilot, commercial or ATP.  There are many Section 333 Grant Letter holders who do not have the requisite pilot certificate, but they employ people who do.  And those pilots are bound to the terms and conditions of the operator’s Section 333 Grant Letter conditions.

 

Now, to the question of do I need to take the Part 107 airman’s written exam.

You fall into one of two boxes here.

  • You have a current Part 61 Airman’s Certificate OR
  • You do not have a Part 61 Airman’s Certificate.

 

I have a Part 61 Airman’s Certificate

You do have to take an exam. But not the same exam as the new pilot without a Part 61 airman’s certificate.

Today, you can go to the FAA Becoming a Pilot website and scroll down to the section titled: “Existing Pilots – What to Expect”.

Step 1 may be completed now.  Complete the online training course “Part 107 small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) ALC-451” available on the FAA FAASTeam website. From this link select the Part 107 sUAS Training Course.

You will need to Login to Your FAASafety.gov Account, or create an account if you’re an old fart like me who earned my pilot certificates before the FAA had computers.

After you log on you may take the written exam. Again and again until you score 100%. Save the certificate of completion – you will need it later.

Everything else happens on or after August 19.  In the meanwhile,  you should create an account on the FAA IACRA website.  About a week before August 29, try to start an application for a “Remote Pilot” certification.  (The category isn’t available today).  You will enter your 20-digit Part 107 Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (ALC-451) certificate number.

2016Jun39073451-1-ANONYMIZED-320x247

To obtain your certificate on August 29, you can try to contact your FSDO (good luck with that) to schedule an appointment for the remaining steps. Otherwise, find an FAA-Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE), or an Airman Certification Representative (ACR). Most flight schools have an ACR on staff.

You will have to pay the DPE or ACR to verify your ID since they are not FAA employees, but they have the authority to immediately issue a temporary Part 107 remote pilot certificate.

If you don’t mind waiting a couple of weeks, you can, instead, take your application and test results to a CFI and pay the CFI to verify your ID. However, the CFI doesn’t have the authority to issue a temporary certificate.

But none of them, not the FSDO, DPE, ACR or CFI can take your application before august 29.

If your BFR is not current you will have to either get a BFR logged before you submit the application with the FSDO, DPE, ACR or CFI, or you can take the Part 107 written exam as if you were a new pilot.

 

I do not have a Part 61 Airman’s Certificate

The new pilot has to take the 60-question in-person written exam.  Based on the Part 61 exam and the sample Part 107 exam questions I’ve seen, the FAA is serious about the level of aeronautical knowledge the sUAS pilot must know.  If you prepare for the Sports Pilot written exam, you will be more than ready for the Part 107 sUAS exam.  You can download the Airman Knowledge Testing Supplement (PDF)  FAA-CT-8080-2G here.

The knowledge test areas include:

  1. Applicable regulations relating to small unmanned aircraft system rating privileges, limitations, and flight operation
  2. Airspace classification and operating requirements, and flight restrictions affecting small unmanned aircraft operation
  3. Aviation weather sources and effects of weather on small unmanned aircraft performance
  4. Small unmanned aircraft loading and performance
  5. Emergency procedures
  6. Crew resource management
  7. Radio communication procedures
  8. Determining the performance of small unmanned aircraft
  9. Physiological effects of drugs and alcohol
  10. Aeronautical decision-making and judgment
  11. Airport operations
  12. Maintenance and preflight inspection procedures

You can’t do anything else before August 29, but study the AKTS and take the Part 61 exam for practice now.  The online training course and exam for “Part 107 small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) ALC-451” is available on the FAA FAASTeam website. From this link select the Part 107 sUAS Training Course.

Shortly before August 29 you should be able to schedule to take the exam at any of approximately 500 FAA-designated testing centers.  Often the testing center is co-located with a flight school, and many of them have an Airman Certification Representative (ACR) or Certified Flight Instruction (CFI) on staff.  Ask when you make your reservation for the exam because you will need to find one of them for the next step.  the CFI or ACR can identify you to the FAA’s satisfaction and process your application.  The Testing Center cannot.  Of course, your testing center proctor is likely to be a CFI or ACR.  You should also create an account on the FAA IACRA website.  About a week before August 29, try to start an application for a “Remote Pilot” certification.  (The category isn’t available today).

You will pay a fee to the Testing Center, estimated at $150, and another fee to the CFI or ACR (the price is negotiable, but expect $50 to $100) to process the application since they are not FAA employees.

When the FAA receives your application, your ID is sent to the TSA to make sure you aren’t a terrorist. Once past that obstacle, the FAA estimates this will take two weeks, the FAA will put your temporary certificate on your IACRA account.  They may send you an email that you have been approved, but I would recommend you check your IACRA account daily.  At the same time the FAA will mail you your permanent certificate.

Building a Drone Photography Business

First, the new Part 107 rules don’t become effective until late August, so for now a Section 333 Grant of Exemption letter plus an FAA-issued Pilot Certificate is still required for commercial flight with a drone.

Training:

There will be a surge of businesses offering drone training, including mine: http://www.treetop.academy (still in development).
However there are four training needs.
1. Ground School – learning what is needed to pass the written exam for the Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate with a small UAS rating.  That’s a mouthful, so let’s just call it a Drone Pilot’s Certificate.  (The FAA does not issue licenses).  The written exam for a new pilot will be almost as comprehensive as the written exam for a Sports Pilot or Private Pilot applicants.  Readers can get a peek at sample questions from the FAA.  If one wishes to get a head start, then take a pilot ground school.  Some community colleges offer pilot ground school courses or you could go to a local General Aviation airport and look for a sign reading “Learn to Fly”.  You will need to find a convenient FAA Authorized Testing Center to take the written exam, and many of them are co-located with a pilot training service where you can inquire about enrolling in a ground school.  There are also many pilot ground schools online, some free and some paid.  In a pilot ground school you will learn a bit more than what is needed to pass the FAA Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate written exam.  I really don’t think there will be questions on Cabin Atmosphere Control Systems in the UAS exam, but you may learn about it in a pilot ground school.

2. What Drone to buy – This mostly depends on two factors; your mission and what is your budget.  The333.org has examined 4970 Exemptions through 3/17/2016 and the data contains 902 Models of UAS from 256 Manufacturers, so there is no simple answer.
Budget: I strongly recommend buying a relatively cheaper drone (relative to your main camera drone) to learn the basics of flying.  You will crash, so buy spare props.  You also don’t want to risk an expensive camera and gimbal while learning to fly.  (It is not unusual for the camera and gimbal to be valued far more than the aircraft).  Fortunately, almost all commercially available drones use the same control configuration (left-stick is throttle and rudder/yaw, right stick is X-Y position). I would start with something in the $200 price range like the Hubsan X4, or look for something used on e-Bay.  Why not a sub-$100 drone?  Simply that they are often too light and too sensitive to control stick inputs for basic training.  When you transition to a heavier drone, you will be surprised with the sluggish response from the added load.  Heavier drones are also more stable.  My first drone was a DIY hexacopter from 3D-Robotics, and the learning crashes were expensive.  I bought a DJI Phantom 2 and haven’t flown the hex since.
Mission: There are many mission-specific drones.  I would not try to do a mapping mission with my DJI Phantom drone because the camera field is too wide, nor would I want to spend $30,000 on an Octocopter with a RED cinema camera attached to shoot Real Estate photos.  At the very least, you want a camera with at least a 1440 resolution and a three-axis gimbal.  This would give you pretty good quality photos and videos for most missions.  Personally, I like the DJI line and can recommend their Inspire or Matrix drones. Why DJI? since the company owns more than half of the drone market, support and replacement parts won’t be difficult to find. (Or afford).

3. Insurance – What a can of worms.  If you have general liability insurance, you might have some liability coverage for any damage caused by your drone.  Odds are, you don’t.  As the market matures we will see more competition in drone insurance, but for now almost all drone insurance is through conventional aircraft insurance policies and you can expect to pay $1,000 per year per aircraft.  Aviation insurance comes in two flavors, liability and hull.  Liability is a must-have as many clients will require proof of insurance.  Hull typically covers the aircraft itself, and notably NOT the camera, gimbal and other accessories attached to the aircraft.  Aircraft insurers consider those as personal property and not part of the aircraft.  As I said, a can of worms.  (Some manufacturers are selling “insurance” with their aircraft, but it’s really just like an extended warranty on your refrigerator.  There is no liability coverage provided).  I have come across one insurer, Unmanned Risk (http://unmannedrisk.com/) that has a new product that interests me.  They are experimenting with an insurance program that sets rates according to how much you fly according to a data recorder you attach to your drone.  Not unlike Snapshot from Progressive Auto Insurance.  I actually expect that an auto insurer may get into drone insurance in the next year or two as the volume will be too large to ignore and the risk too low.  (There’s been more than a million hours of flight of these small aircraft and yet there has not been one documented serious accident in the US – not one.  There are on average three General Aviation aircraft crashes every day).

4. Specific Mission Training – Flying a drone for tower and bridge inspections is completely different from real-estate or agriculture missions.  Flight by civil authorities (city, state, etc) has even more legal prerequisites to flight, so their training would be more intense.  Often if you buy a mission-specific aircraft, like the eBee Ag Drone, you can expect the seller will also offer training with the aircraft purchase.  for the smaller drone operators who plan to learn on-the-job, all I can say is practice, practice, practice.  there are probably a thousand photos of my home from all the practice flights I’ve made.  Experiment with different altitudes and distances then look at the resulting photos for composition and framing – no different than ground-based photography, but more challenging.  Which is why you charge a premium for drone photography.

Other business concerns:

Pricing your Service – As with most service industries, you charge what the customer will pay, based on the value to the client.  A farmer will happily pay $5,000 for an aerial survey of his fields with an IR camera that records the health of the crops that only look green to a conventional camera.  There are hundreds of price calculators all over the web, but they all take into account the cost of doing business (equipment, insurance, amortization, salaries and office expenses) and the value to the client.  You will never grow a business by starting out cheap – “because you are young/new/inexperienced/working from mom’s garage” (choose one).  If you start out cheap, those are your clients forever. Cheap.  In my personal experience, clients who are only looking for the lowest bidder are most often the most problematic clients.  If you have an existing photography business then you should calculate your additional cost for operating a drone and roll that into your existing price structure.  Resist the urge to price your service just a little lower than the competition.  Chasing the bottom line can only end up one way – you hit the bottom and quit the business.  Price your services where you actually make a profit greater than simply putting your cash into bonds.  If you have to offer a discount to gain new clients, make it a short-term special.  Have you ever walked into a department store and not seen “Sale” signs everywhere?  No.  So, don’t be afraid of higher published prices.

What should you have in your Terms of Service? – flying a drone for business creates a new set of service concerns.  Weather becomes more problematic than ground-based photography.  Rain and snow won’t affect the drone flight, but get one drop of precipitation on the lens and the whole shoot is ruined.  Under Part 107, permission for operations near airports and over crowds becomes easier to obtain, but it’s not assured and not automatic.  You may ask the FAA for a waiver for any proscribed flight.  The FAA is working on an online waiver application application (is that redundant?)  where you present your case for the waiver and document how you will maintain safety.  So for your TOS, you should be prepared to reschedule due to precipitation or high winds that would exceed your drone’s capabilities.  You should also be prepared to terminate a planned mission if permission to fly can’t be obtained, and I think a full refund of deposits would be appropriate.  As with ground based projects, how do you currently handle equipment failures?  Do you carry a second camera? Should you have a backup drone?

Be ahead of the expected competition.

When Part 107 rules are finalized there will be a flood of barnstormers in the field.  Most will fail as a business, but if you are practiced, disciplined and ready to conduct business first with flight a business asset that you offer to the client, then your business will survive the initial wave.

If your clients want to buy their own drone and get their own Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate, fine.  Let them.  Even help them.  Offer to train them (for a fee, of course). It’s no different from a real estate sales person shooting their own MLS curb photos.  I think clients who want to shoot their own drone photos will be a minority. Most will drop out as they learn how much study is required to pass the written exam.  Some will drop out as they discover that the $300 drone from Amazon just can’t compete with your $5,000 system for quality.  Some will quit because owning, maintaining and keeping proficient with a drone is simply not their core-competence. These will be your best clients in the future.

Good luck and please keep me apprised of your progress toward developing a drone business.  (Post a comment or send me an email).